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July 23, 2019

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Yiddish festival organizers say celebration is key for Jews to beat persecution

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Temple Rabbi Malcolm Cohen poses for a photo in his office at Temple Sinai Las Vegas on March 10, 2017.

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Las Vegas' Temple Sinai cantorial soloist and spokeswoman Heather Klein poses for a photo in Las Vegas, Nev. on March 10, 2017.

Yiddish Las Vegas: A Music & Culture Festival

• When: 6:30 p.m. March 18 and 9:30 a.m.-noon March 19

• What: Featuring live comedy and traditional music and dancing, as well as art and the Beyond Bubbe Bakeoff

• Where: Temple Sinai, 9001 Hillpointe Road, Las Vegas

• Cost: $36 ($50 VIP donor tickets include a reception with the festival’s artists at 6 p.m. March 18)

• Information: Contact Heather Klein at 702-254-5110 or [email protected]

This week’s second annual Yiddish Las Vegas festival, a celebration of Ashkenazi Jewish culture, is falling in the midst of a rash of anti-Semitism.

This month, graffiti featuring swastikas and anti-police messages was found in a residential area for UNLV students. Sprayed on a power box at 3581 Spencer St., the graffiti followed a February bomb threat made against the Jewish Community Center of Southern Nevada. On March 10, the center was evacuated for a second time after Metro Police said it received “suspicious communications.”

Local incidents echo anti-Semitic threats and attacks that have ramped up across the country since the presidential election. Immediately following Donald Trump’s win, Nazi-themed graffiti found its way to walls in Wellsville, N.Y. — one reading “Make America White Again” — and a Jewish school in Middlebury, Vt. The Southern Poverty Law Center documented 100 anti-Semitic acts in the 10 days following the election, about 12 percent of all documented acts of hate in that time period.

On Jan. 9, robocall bomb threats were made to 16 Jewish community centers in nine states — Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Maryland, New Jersey, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Tennessee — though no bombs were found. Nine days later, more bomb threats were made to 27 Jewish community centers across 17 states, prompting evacuations and an FBI investigation. Four more waves of such threats, the most recent on March 6, have brought the total to more than 100 incidents targeting about 70 such centers in 30 states.

On Feb. 20, more than 200 headstones were found turned over in the Chesed Shel Emeth Jewish Cemetery near St. Louis in what authorities determined to be an act of vandalism. Six days later, about 100 grave sites were found damaged at Mount Carmel Jewish Cemetery in Philadelphia.

Yiddish Las Vegas is expected to draw double its 100 attendees from last year, said Rabbi Malcolm Cohen, who has led operations at host site Temple Sinai since moving to Las Vegas in September 2009. He said much of the projected attendance boost and unity spreading in his community is fear-based, which is “not the main reason we want to get Jews together.”

“It’s great because we want everyone to stand up to hatred in whatever form it is in,” Cohen said, “but be part of the Jewish community through hope and inspiration, not because of fear and guilt. We want them to be inspired and be part of the community. If they want to speak out against anti-Semites after that, even better. I’m just saying come for the defiance, but stay for the joy.”

The open-to-the-public cultural festival, staged today and Sunday at Summerlin-based Temple Sinai, features a Yiddish/English comedy show, a Klezmer band, art galleries and food sampling, among other attractions for adults and children.

Emphasis for this weekend’s festival is not on recent negative headlines, said Heather Klein, the event’s organizer and Temple Sinai’s cantorial soloist. It’s about celebration.

“This is an event that brings together people of many different ethnicities, and the fact that Jews are coming together is very special,” Klein said. “We are going to celebrate fiercely, because that’s what Jews do.”

Klein said security staffers would be on hand, though that’s standard for a weekend event at Temple Sinai.

Cohen, who speaks with a British accent, moved to the United States from his hometown of London over a decade ago for more freedom and opportunity to live his faith. A self-described “Reform Jew,” Cohen said Jewish people are more accepted in Las Vegas than anywhere in Europe. Despite the hate Jewish people are facing, Cohen said they must look to themselves for happiness and growth in the face of adversity. He sees the festival as a reminder of how much there is to celebrate.

“This is a vibrant culture,” he said, “and events like this weekend help bring it to life.”